Pope Francis has generated global headlines during his week in Brazil for the World Youth Day. He visited slums, met with prisoners and drug addicts, and addressed presidents, cardinals and the country’s elite. His week ended with a Mass celebrated with three million pilgrims. “Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent,” he told the crowds.
On his flight back to Rome, he made headlines for a different reason. A reporter asked him about a Vatican monsignor named Battista Ricca, who allegedly engaged in gay sexual relationships years ago. When he became pope, Francis promoted Msgr. Ricca as interim overseer of the Vatican’s bank. The pope said he ordered a preliminary investigation of the monsignor after rumors began regarding the cleric’s purported sex life. The inquiry “found nothing,” he said.
But then the pope added: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can’t marginalize these people.” And he stated, “What the Lord forgives, he forgets.” This was the first time a pope has spoken in defense of gay priests in Catholic ministry, according to Vatican analysts.
Pope Benedict XVI signed a document in 2005 stating that men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” But it also describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law,” and mandates, “under no circumstances can they be approved.”
How, then, are we to understand Pope Francis’ statement? According to The Washington Post, his remarks indicate “a shift in tone under Francis’ young papacy and an emphasis on a church that is more inclusive and merciful rather than critical and disciplinary.” Britain’s The Telegraph says, “Pope Francis appears to have softened the Catholic Church’s attitude towards homosexuality and gay priests.” CNN states, “the pope seemed to signal a change in tone, if not in teaching, in the church’s stance towards gays and lesbians more generally.”
As with the pope’s earlier statements on universalism, it is likely that his impromptu remarks on gay priests will be clarified by the Church in coming days. I hope the Vatican will strike a biblical balance that offers grace to homosexuals without endorsing homosexual activity. As I have written previously, homosexual behavior, like all sex outside biblical marriage, is consistently forbidden by Scripture. It is not, however, the “unpardonable sin” (Mark 3:28-29). So many today either condemn homosexuals or condone homosexual activity—we must avoid both.
Author Rick Riordan notes, “It takes strength and courage to admit the truth.” And to speak it in love (Ephesians 4:15).